January 30, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Bowery Diner Ambition
Wrestle that slimy, elusive whelk from its shell: new kid at the raw bar. Photo: Steven Richter
I like the look. I like the vintage diner airs with retro metal chairs in pastel hues. I like the pretty crowd. I like the waiter’s modish haircut. I’m nuts about this Reuben. If The Bowery Diner were in my nabe instead of $19.65 clicks on the taxi meter away, it would become one of my haunts. At least on the evidence of this first early visit to the newest venture of Motorino’s Mathieu Palombino.
Love that Reuben but the slaw alongside is even better. Photo: Gael Greene
I’d be out on reviewing forays as I usually am, longing for this Reuben sandwich – house- cured pastrami, juicy and smoky on sturdy toasted rye with gruyère, Russian dressing and sauerkraut. Okay, slightly namby-pamby sauerkraut. And what’s in this purple cole slaw side that gives it so much perk and snap? Cider vinegar, olive oil, grain mustard and a trickle of pickle juice does the trick.
You might want to assess your own detour to this still shabby stretch below the hot hub of Houston, where Daniel’s DBGB sits across from Keith McNally’s Pulino's. Only the New Museum breaks up the mouldering in this block. If it’s a major trek, you might best put together a few friends so you can get a rez – six is the minimum – but if you’re early enough on a frigid night and only four, you might be lucky enough to score a booth in the back.
Owner Palombino has done exhaustive diner research; dig the counter. Photo: Steven Richter
As a long lean mannequin leads us toward the kitchen door, we pass a stroller or two, obvious signal that young families have invaded the neighborhood. Crayons and coloring pages are available and soon, a children’s menu. A true time warp. Where have all the bums gone?
White-tiled walls evoke memories of Florent, the late, lamented Meatpacking pioneer. But unlike the ‘80s mix of drugged, inebriated, gender adventurers and wannabes at Florent, the twenty and thirty-somethings collected at big tables here tonight look like milkshakes and double burgers with fries might be their most hedonistic indulgence.
Keeping my eye on the late night crowd. Photo: Gael Greene
I’m really a milkshake dame myself and I do like red wine with dinner, but given the cocktail rage, I feel I must sample. These are curated by Greg Seider of the cocktail mecca Summit Bar. I never heard of Summit or Seider till I escaped my usual track for dinner at Prima a few weeks ago, where Palombino and Seider – milking his credits as mixologist for Le Bernardin’s first cocktail list - are two of the five partners.
But rum and cardamom strike my fancy, so I chose the “Rupert Holmes.” Did you recognize that name as the composer, songwriter, musician, and author whose number one pop hit Escape is The Pina Colada Song? How naïve and sheltered are we! Much cozier and more warming on this bitterly cold night is “The 1879,” rye and a blend of bitters that tastes like an elegant Old Fashioned. Call me fusty if you will, there’s no way I’d pair either one with my Reuben.
The Caesar with anchovy embedded toasts and a flurry of parmesan. Photo: Gael Greene
Very ordinary bread in a paper bag is inauspicious. And this is another just-good-enough Caesar salad, with bits of anchovy embedded in toast and flurries of shredded cheese. I’d like a better ratio of fried calamari to frisée in the miso-touched salad. As for whelks from the raw bar, it’s an admirably adventurous trend now. They have them at Prima too. It’s just another slimy sea slug to me. The menu offers them disguised as snails, in garlic butter. That might be a better choice.
It’s only $9, so perhaps that’s enough fried calamari in the frisee salad. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s not too likely I’d overlook mac’n’cheese on the menu even if the listing weren’t set off by a powder blue rectangle. I order the larger $16 portion in case we get snowed in. Ha. Broccoli in baked macaroni is a fiendish concept. Not enough bacon, no crunch. Well-made macaroni with or without real truffles doesn’t need to be reinvented every other week.
Behind the disappointing macaroni lurks the machine gun sandwich. Photo: Steven Richter
The machine gun sandwich, a very decent steak tartare buried under a thatch of excellent frites with aioli on a hero, is apparently a Belgian rendition of what they think Americans eat, according to Google. It’s silly, too much bread, impossible to pick up. Impossible to eat, really, but wonderful tartare. I comfort my friend who ordered it with a big chunk of my Reuben as busboys sweep by denuding our table. Clearly they have been trained to whisk abandoned plates away, diner style, even when we’re still eating.
As you may have suspected, this diner is more ambitious than authentic, with entrees like steamed lobster and choucroute, $21 to $34. Since the kitchen has run out of duck confit, our friend Josephine orders roasted duck breast. The large chunk of meat is cut on a diagonal - rare and meaty - and served with a side of apple sauce and a disc of potato pancake cut in four. Crispy and delicious but way too salty.
Meaty duck breast with an almost-perfect potato pancake. Photo: Steven Richter
Now the late night nomads are tripping in on spike-heeled boots. Gazing at the table nearby I realize we should have tried the house’s tall piled-up burger: a pair of meat patties with cheese or bearnaise, lettuce and tomatoes. In the kitchen, Palombino’s crew slaps out double patties, “because the seared part is the best part and you get four seared surfaces,” the patron explains.
The waiter recites our dessert options. (“It’s faster than dropping dessert menus and returning for the order,” Palombino confides). There is a chocolate cupcake with salted caramel, cheesecake with caramelized passion fruit, apple pie and cherry pie. “All pies are homemade here,” says the waiter. Tilt. My eyes grow wide. Josephine is about to say cheesecake, but agrees it will be cherry pie with whipped cream. It’s a big wedge, with a pinched edge so thick it makes us laugh. Of course, it’s homemade. It doesn’t really matter if it isn’t wonderful. It’s enough just to be a cherry pie.
241 Bowery between Prince and Stanton Streets. 212 388 0062. Breakfast Monday through Friday 7 am to 5 pm. Saturday and Sunday 8 am to 4:30 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 pm till midnight. Friday and Saturday till 2 am.